Harmless by Julienne Van Loon

December 5, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Harmless by Julienne Van Loon (2013)

Van_Loon_HarmlessHarmless is the second Australian book I’ve read with the sole purpose of discovering Perth before our guest from this city arrives. (See here for the first book). I’m afraid I still don’t know much about Perth, so now I’ll wait for her arrival next week. That said, I’m still glad I’ve read Harmless by Julienne Van Loon.

The book opens with old Rattuwat and young Amanda walking in the bush by a scorching heat. Their car broke down and they have an appointment at the local prison where Amanda’s father, Dave, is serving a prison sentence. Amanda is only eight and she thinks she remembers the way to the prison but will she get there on time? Rattuwat is an old man, he’s Thai and has come to Australia to bury his daughter Sua. He barely speaks English and he’s following Amanda reluctantly.

How did Amanda and Rattuwat end up walking together like this? Actually, Sua and Dave were living together and she was taking care of his children while he was locked away. Now Rattuwat is in Australia, his son-in-law is in prison and there’s no one to watch Amanda.

The tone of the novella is set and it’s leaded with tension. Will they make it on time for the appointment at the prison? Will they find their way? In parallel to the day’s events, we see Dave waiting for them in prison, we follow Amanda’s thoughts and discover her short life and Rattuwat’s thoughts unveil Sua’s life in Thailand.

Different continent, different climate but the book the closest to Harmless is Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi. Same bleakness, same unbearable hopelessness. They show characters pinned to the ground by circumstances and too weak or too isolated to stand up and climb out of their hole. The mother in Beside the Sea and Dave here are in a desperate need of a support system and there’s no one. Both novellas are difficult to read because they show children whose fate is inexorable. And the reader wonders: what are the social services doing?

Amanda is the result of a one-night-stand and her mother doesn’t want her. She literally dropped Amanda on Dave’s lap at a party and left. What a start in life for a child! Dave, who never knew about the pregnancy, took the baby home and started to raise her. Dave was a petty criminal and a drug user, he tried to be a good father but kept taking wrong turns. His years with Sua were an oasis in his life. After Sua’s death, there’s no one to take care of Amanda and he’s sick with worry for her and full of regrets for ending up in prison. Will Amanda’s mother accept to take care of her until he’s free?

Rattuwat reflects on Sua’s life and her past in Thailand comes to light. She was a victim of the sex trade and her coming to Australia with an Australian man is not very clean. Rattuwat can’t help thinking he failed her as a father and now she’s gone.

In Harmless, two men assess their parenting skills. Both have regrets because their actions will cause their daughter great harm. We often see books with crappy fathers but they never seem to notice how bad they are. Dave and Rattuwat have this in common, in addition to their love for Sua.

As a reader and as a mother, I was only preoccupied by Amanda’s future. I kept wondering about her chances to have a happy life with such a start and I kept thinking about all the real Amandas in our societies.

Thanks to Lisa for recommending this novella. Her review can be found here.


  1. December 5, 2015 at 11:32 pm

    This is a beaut review (LOL, as we say in Australia) – but you are wrong, you have learned two very important things about Australia, and Perth in particular.
    Firstly, about the relentless heat. When my son lived in Perth for three days in summer he longed for rain. Endless blue skies sound great, and they are if you’re in holiday mode, but even if you’re used to it, as he was by then, it can exhaust you physically and psychologically. Even here in Melbourne the heat can be dangerous and we are warned to look out for the elderly in our communities, we are told never to leave children or dogs in cars because they turn into ovens, and even a half-hour walk in the heat can enough to put you in hospital or worse. The heat can drive you mad and there are heaps of books that feature this phenomenon. We fear and respect the weather the way that people of the north fear and respect snow.
    Secondly, the fear of getting lost. You will have noticed that we in Australia almost all live in cities along the coast, and the eastern seaboard in the particular. The bush is very beautiful but it is perilous and our literature has, from the very beginning featured stories about people getting lost in it. Little children wandered away into the dense scrub and were never found again. Children at school learn that our explorers died horribly in the waterless deserts, while these days it’s backpackers who are found dead not far from a vehicle from which they wandered in their delirium. WW2 Planes crashed into thick forests and weren’t found until the 21st century, and almost every year hikers disappear into the snow-covered mountains of Tasmania and their bodies aren’t found till the snow melts.
    Why Perth in particular? Well, firstly watching the weather forecasts each night we see that Perth is having yet another day of relentless heat, but the map reminds us that it’s a very long way away. Perth is the most isolated city in the world, miles and miles away from any other city and trapped with an ocean to its west and a vast desert to its east. If you are in Perth you really can’t easily go anywhere else except its satellite towns. Your Perth teenager can’t hop on a Eurostar and find herself experiencing another culture in the other cities of Europe or in London. (It takes 3-4 days by train to get to the east, and a non-stop bus takes 48 hours to get to Melbourne. And it costs a lot!)
    Beneath its gritty story Harmless sings to us of these elements of our national psyche.


    • December 8, 2015 at 11:13 pm

      Thank you so much for your fascinating comment. Sorry to answer so late but I needed to be in front of the computer to answer.

      The relentless heat is present in Isabelle of the Moon and Stars and in Harmless. It wasn’t a surprise to me as I associate Australia with scorching heat. (I’m more surprised when you talk to me about heaters) From the little episodes of heat waves we’ve had in Europe, I can relate to that. But it’s true, the fear of the weather isn’t ingrained in us, at least not in Western Europe. (except in the mountains.) Sadly, with global warning, we are slowly learning to listen to weather alerts too. We’ve had heat waves and we learnt about how fast children and elderly people can dehydrate, floods and storms and we learnt to stay home when Météo France says it’s a red alert.

      There isn’t much wilderness left in Europe, I’m afraid and I think it explains why the USA, Canada or Australia are so fascinating for us. My first experience with this was in British Columbia. In France, you see a sign by the road that says “watch out for deer”, you shrug it off because nobody’s ever seen an actual deer crossing the road. You might hear stories about hitting a wild boar, but that’s it. Imagine us driving on a Canadian road, seeing “watch out for moose” sign and actually seeing a moose on the road! This trip turned into a nature program with more pictures of animals than people.

      The fear of getting lost is totally new to me, so thanks a lot for the explanation. When I read Harmless, it escaped me that it was something in an Aussie’s DNA. Honestly, I thought Amanda and Rattuwat were in such surroundings because the authorities had put the prison in a remote place on purpose. It never occurred to me that you could be in the wilderness so close from the city. When I was reading, I was worried they’d die of dehydration but not that they could get lost and never be found. In a sense, I’m glad I didn’t know that because I would have felt worse while reading 🙂

      I’ve seen were Perth is on the map and yes, I thought it was far away from everything. I’ve never been to Australia but I’ve been to the USA and I know the feeling of being in a country without a long “Western past” (As SA Jones writes in Isabelle of the Moon and Stars, we should remember these territories were inhabited before the Whites arrived ‘Australia is not old,’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘No.’ Well, Isabelle thinks, not old for the whitefellas.) It is strange for me to be in a country where no city existed before the 16th C. I hope she’ll be curious about history because Lyon was the capital of the Gaules and its history dates back to, at least, the Roman empire. I’m looking forward to taking her to the Roman sites and the Vieux Lyon.

      PS: In French, LOL is Mdr (Mort de rire) 


      • December 8, 2015 at 11:57 pm

        Mdr! I’ll try it out on my French teacher, thanks:)


        • December 9, 2015 at 12:06 am

          PS *blush* I should have proof-read my comment before sending it. “Can *be* enough to put you in hospital”…


        • December 14, 2015 at 11:07 pm

          Let me know what she/he says!


          • December 14, 2015 at 11:10 pm

            I’ll have to wait till next year, alas, my last class was cancelled.


            • December 14, 2015 at 11:13 pm

              Ah right, it’s the summer holidays in Australia.

              PS: our guest has arrived. She seems lovely but for now she’s a bit overwhelmed by time difference and being in another country.


              • December 24, 2015 at 2:00 am

                It will be interesting what she says about living in Perth.

                BTW Lisa’s discussion of the heat and isolation is excellent, particularly in terms of how they play out in our literary psyche. But, you do have to remember that Lisa has an English background 😉 and doesn’t much like the heat. I, though, am Australian-born and I LOVE the heat. (I don’t love multiple days of high heat just like, I’m sure, many northerners don’t love multiple days of seriously freezing temperatures BUT I much prefer hot weather to cold). However, I do respect the heat so, as Lisa said, I would not leave any living creature, human or other animal locked in a car, and I’m sensible about how and when I go out in it. But that, too, that knowledge of what it means to live in a hot country is built into us from the beginning.


              • December 24, 2015 at 11:13 am

                Thanks for your comment, Sue, it’s helpful. I didn’t know about Lisa’s English background. 🙂

                We do have a knowledge of living in a hot country here too. It can be quite hot in Lyon (35°C happens regularly too) and we know about cars, etc. The big difference is that there’s hardly any wilderness left. The risk to be in situations like the one described in Harmless is very limited.


              • December 24, 2015 at 12:28 pm

                Of course you do. I knew that!! But wilderness, yes. We are not of course the only country with that, but we are one of the countries with that. I lived for a few years in a remote NW Queensland town in my childhood, and we drove the outback between there and coastal cities. I loved that experience, but you did have to be careful (particularly in the days before mobile or sat. phones etc). I must read Harmless.


              • December 24, 2015 at 3:35 pm

                We traveled in the Death Valley, so I guess I have an idea of the recommendations you need to follow when driving the outback.
                Merry Christmas to you.


  2. December 6, 2015 at 10:28 am

    Hard-hitting stuff. It’s another European reference, but your commentary on the novel reminded me of the some of the Dardenne brothers’ social realist films. I think it’s the sense of feeling trapped by circumstances…the hopelessness of it all.


    • December 8, 2015 at 11:14 pm

      Oh, I remember Rosetta. Terrible and bleak. Your reference is spot on.


  3. December 7, 2015 at 10:27 am

    I think I’d like this – or rather – I would like to read this. In spite of the similarities with Olmi’s novel.


    • December 8, 2015 at 11:15 pm

      It’s grim but it’s well written and Lisa’s comment explains the context. It’s worth reading (and it’s short)


  4. December 7, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    Oof, I’m not sure I have another Beside the Sea in me right now. Sounds powerful though. Fascinating stuff from Lisa too on Australia and how the book reflects that more than those of us outside might realise.


    • December 8, 2015 at 11:17 pm

      Everybody who’s read it remembers Beside the Sea. Such a powerful novella.
      Lisa’s comment is fascinating. I’m really glad she left it because I missed all these aspects when I read the book.


  5. Tom Cunliffe
    December 8, 2015 at 7:26 pm

    I read Beside the Sea some time ago and remember the bleak atmosphere around the little family as they struggled to survive. This sounds very interesting and your review is very vivid and gives your readers a great idea of what the book is like. Lisa’s comments provide interesting background information which my relatives in Perth would confirm. The relentless temperatures of 40C mean that they can only go outside really in the morning or late at night.


    • Tom Cunliffe
      December 8, 2015 at 7:26 pm

      Sorry, I meant early in the morning not really


    • December 8, 2015 at 11:22 pm

      It’s a short book and worth reading.

      I’m glad Lisa left that comment, it really opened my eyes on things I had missed in the novella. That’s the beauty of blogging in English for me. I wouldn’t be in contact with Australian readers if I were writing in French and it’s worth the effort and the embarrassing grammar or spelling mistakes.


  6. December 18, 2015 at 7:27 pm

    An Aussie book that I’ve missed. I think I’d like this. I haven’t read Beside the Sea and to be honest I wasn’t attracted to it after reading reviews…


    • December 19, 2015 at 10:33 am

      You’ll probably like it (and as Max would point out, it’s short)
      Beside the Sea is worth reading but not when you feel a little low.


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